Concern has been growing in recent weeks about the rights of European migrants, many of whom have been living in the UK for many years, with the government signalling that it will use their residency status as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations once Article 50 is triggered.
In fact, since May 2016 the Home Office has regularly been deporting EU and EEA migrants for the crime of being homeless. In this interview with North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) activist David Jones, we reveal the extent of this policy.
1. Can you explain the new Home Office policy on homeless EEA nationals?
In May 2016 the Home Office introduced a new policy stating that rough sleeping was an ‘abuse’ of EEA nationals’ right of freedom of movement. The implication of this policy was that rough sleepers could be ‘administratively removed’ (effectively, deported) from the UK purely on the basis that they were sleeping rough.
Since the policy was introduced, Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (ICE) teams have carried out a large number of raids on the sleeping sites of EEA nationals sleeping rough in the UK. Migrants from Central and Eastern Europe—Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria—have been particularly affected, but Italian and Portuguese nationals have also been detained and removed.
2. So homelessness is essentially becoming criminalised?
Yes. The Home Office already had the power to ‘remove’ individual EEA nationals on the basis of criminal or persistently anti-social conduct, or on the basis that they were ‘economically inactive’. The big change with the May 2016 policy was that now they were saying that rough sleeping alone was enough to make someone a target for detention and deportation.
Many of the homeless people affected have lived in the UK for years, usually working and paying tax. They end up on the streets due to harsh welfare rules that limit their entitlement to benefits and leave them open to labour exploitation. Many rough sleepers also have substance abuse and mental health issues. Apart from believing that homelessness is not a crime, we believe that the Home Office is targeting some of the most vulnerable people in our society—people who should be supported, not criminalised.
Another factor here is that both local councils and some of the UK’s major homelessness charities—Thames Reach, St Mungo’s and CGL (formerly CRI) —are implicated in the enforcement of the removals policy. Homelessness outreach teams commissioned by local authorities participate in immigration enforcement raids and share information with the Home Office about the whereabouts of rough sleepers.
Since we began campaigning on this issue in December, the Home Office has changed its policy again. On February 1st 2017 they issued new guidance saying that rough sleeping ‘may be a misuse of a right to reside’ and that rough sleepers can be removed ‘only where [removal] is considered proportionate’. This appears to be an attempt to make the policy more palatable in light of the challenges to its legality. However, in view of how enthusiastically immigration enforcement has carried out the policy so far, and the hardening of Theresa May’s rhetoric on immigration, it’s unlikely that the change of language will make much difference to how the policy is implemented.
3. How does this link to wider issues around Brexit?
The policy on rough sleepers was introduced before the Brexit vote, possibly as part of an effort to show that the government was getting tough on EU migration. Now Britain has voted to leave the European Union, things are likely to get even worse for vulnerable European migrants living in the UK.
The spike in hate crime that followed the Brexit vote is a natural corollary of hostile policies like this one. And—of course—nobody knows what will happen to the status of European migrants in the UK once Britain leaves the EU and the directive on free movement no longer applies. It’s worth noting that EU law offers the only basis on which legal challenges to these removals can be mounted.
Beyond Brexit, the detention and removal of rough sleepers reflects a deepening of the ‘hostile environment’ for migrants, which successive Labour and Tory governments have consciously fostered. The involvement of local councils and homelessness charities in immigration raids on rough sleepers symptomatizes the extension of border controls into all aspects of civil society in the UK.
4. How many EEA nationals are being deported for being homeless?
It’s unclear. FOI requests made to London local authorities have shown that immigration raids on rough sleepers took place at rate of up to one-per-borough-per-month in 2016. 22 EEA-national rough sleepers were ‘processed for immigration detention’ as a result of raids conducted in Haringey alone. But we don’t yet know how many EEA nationals have been affected by the policy.
The FOI results can be accessed here.
Nor is it clear what the outcomes are for rough sleepers after they are removed from the UK. Since both social welfare provision and winter temperatures in countries like Poland and Romania are less favourable than in the UK, it seems likely that at least some of those removed will die on the streets in their country of origin.
Two things are evident, however. One is that immigration officers are not making rough sleepers aware of their right of appeal when serving notices of removal. Nor are appeal papers routinely given to people as the policy specifies. We know of one rough sleeper who expressly asked for appeal papers and saw his request refused. Moreover, identification documents are routinely confiscated during raids, which stops people from exercising their treaty rights (e.g. looking for work or working) and finding accommodation.
Also evident is a general escalation of efforts to remove undesirable foreigners from the UK. A new Controlling Migration Fund, launched in November 2016, allows local authorities to apply to central government for money to ‘mitigate the impacts of immigration on local communities’. It is highly likely that some local authorities will apply for money to build their capacity to take enforcement action against rough sleepers.
5. What steps can be taken?
We’re asking people to publicize the written resources we’ve posted on our website. These give rough sleepers advice on what to do if detained or served with papers.
People can also write to their local MP protesting the policy and contact their local councillor asking for clarification on collaboration with immigration enforcement (pro forma letters are on our website). We’re also asking people to let us know of any case studies or stories that might help our campaign.
Finally, we’re calling on homelessness charities to take a rights-based approach to working with vulnerable people and stop collaborating with the Home Office on the detention and removal of rough sleepers.
Interview by Luke Cooper
24th February 2017